One Night in Ürümqi – Ch. 7

We scaled a wracked set of stairs and entered a universe of cheesy posters, garish light, and blacked-out windows. Rihangül had warned me off such places: seedy, cramped, redundant, blank looking “private clubs” that served as fronts for the illicit activities of criminal gangs—but I had sauntered into a few of them anyway, only tobe met by their proprietors’ counterfeit greetings or murderous stares. Rihangül had yanked me out by my leash. I sometimes nose around as manic and naive as a gregarious hound. One of my favorite Uyghur words describes such behavior: valakshirak. It means “all over the place.” I wish it were my name: Valak Shirak. We were with two members of what has been termed the world’s largest criminal organization—two of the nicest guys you could hope to meet anywhere—so I wasn’t worried. I would be taken care of.

We scaled a second set of steps and continued onto an open walkway past another lineup of storefronts mangled by bullet pings and shrapnel dents. A fist of mustachioed hooligans smoking cigarettes, dressed wild in open polyester shirts and stretch slacks with belts, stood glaring at us. We glared back. They probably concealed knives, a tradition of young Uyghur men, one that was often necessary.

We filtered through them, rounded a corner, and came to a door. Strings of blue and pink lights encircled it. Above it, a colossal billboard on the verge of collapse and scorched by white-hot spotlights—the mast of this wrecked ship—jutted out from the rooftop. Oversized Cyrillic block lettering ran across it at an angle, advertising food, private rooms, and enticements for vice and leisure: a pretty, smirking woman, a bottle of liquor, and the head of a horse. The horse head aside, the place had the markings of a brothel.

We opened the door, got momentarily lost in a stairwell, then found a third flight of stairs. Their pitch was ladder steep and had me gripping the handrails, off-balance, forgetting where I was at all for the moment. We ratcheted to the top and advanced through a field of purplish light. We reached the other side and found ourselves in the dimly lit hallway of a venue.The dingy place looked depleted. Sordid something-or-other mated with the air.

We waited in a narrow corridor. Ahmat began pestering the female host—a pallid, bony girl, a shade younger than Rihangül—who appeared out of air as thin as she was. She was overly made up and dressed in urban Kazakh wear—a sassy, colorful, traditional hijab, designer jeans and boots ensemble. Her garb evoked the remarkable images I had seen online of the crush of Uyghur women and girls who had fearlessly rushed the Chinese security, chiding, wailing, and smoting themselves, demanding that their Uyghur men—their sons, brothers, husbands—be released from confinement after the rioting had ceased. The girl led us to a door at the far end of the hallway. We pushed through it and entered—the sun. We squinted around, hands at our brows. A boardroom-style table occupied most of the room, sprawling out from beneath a large window, one with a lovely view of the billboard’s backside. The window stood between us and an errant spotlight beam. It appeared to be melting. I felt like one of four stray ants waiting to be fritzed dead under a lens at high noon.

“So discomfortable,” Rihangül said, fanning herself. Perspiration

didn’t suit her.

“Hai Allah,” said Colonel Aziz and Ahmat, beads of sweat dotting their brows. They turned to us and frowned for our opinion.

“Frowning for an opinion” is a gesture, I thought, but I didn’t have one.

Rihangül did have an opinion. “It’s terrible,” she said. “Theys not enough space to relax. It’s boring, too hot, andah not private at all.”

She had a point. The room was set up for straight, cramped, even captive dining or other more nefarious activities. Truly discomfortable.

Colonel Aziz and Ahmat recalled the girl. We almost knocked her over on our way back down the dim hallway. Beyond our group a rindy-faced, thick man with a thick moustache, smoking a cigarette, enveloping himself rather joyfully in a thick cloud of smoke, watched us from a back office—the boss, enthroned beside a small television tuned to a fuzzy channel. The girl looked at him nervously for some approval, but the boss’s eyes filled with questions. Who were we? Who was I? Where did we come from? Where did I come from? What did we want? Were we to be trusted? Was I to be trusted? Did we have money? I didn’t know what approval we needed, but we got it. The boss’s thick chin dropped into a nod and swung through the smoke back to his television.

We were herded into another corridor. A low sliver of silver-pink light glinted at its far end. Ahmat tightened his grip on his precious box, the sole material object among the apparitions. We were herded near a door. The girl gave it a push, but it wouldn’t budge. She groaned and pushed at it even harder using the slight flank of her body and her bony knee. It didn’t move. She backed away, defeated.

Rihangül commenced pacing back and forth, massaging her

hands. A bad sign. Ahmat and Aziz chewed the girl out. The girl chewed back and fled down the corridor. The drumming of her boot heels diminished across the woodenfloor. We waited in the dark, listening to each other breathe. The complaints of the boss and the girl volleyed back and forth. The drumming sound crescendoed, and the thin girl reappeared, out of breath, fidgeting with a set of keys. She jiggled one of them into the keyhole, turned the lock, and gave the door a final, abrupt shove. Nothing. The room was hopelessly off limits. The girl huffed and quavered while Ahmat, Aziz, and Rihangül berated her. “She say it’s the wrong key. She say she doesn’t have a key for the room. We can’t go in,” Rihangül said.

“That’s strange,” I said. Maybe we were in a brothel.

“Not strange, Andrew guy. Ürümqi . . .”

“Do you believe her?”

“Doesn’t matter, I hate this place and I want to leave.”

The girl lingered, conjuring the time to find and light a cigarette, while the three Uyghurs debated whether we should stay or go. They settled on the latter, and we headed back the way we had come. My parting glance snagged with the girl’s, and our snag became a speck in Rihangül’s eye. She had caught us flirting and started grinding at the floor with the heel of her boot. The two women squared off. Rihangül leveled a dead-eyed stare at the girl; the girl emboldened herself to stare back.

The girl blinked first and took to staring at her boot tips while she suckled on her cigarette, mumbling in another language I didn’t understand.

“Ooewf,” said Rihangül, rolling her eyes, throwing her hands in the air, and denying the two of us with her back as she stomped away. Ahmat, Aziz, and I followed her out. The boss never left his smoky office.

I had cold exited my share of establishments for any number of reasons, but this one, somehow, cut more deeply than a preference for this or that. The subtle complications, awkward (to me) moments, sensitivities, and allowances—the elements of a small, touchy drama I was not privy to, but perhaps played a part in . . .